Ignoring Inboxes

by Mike Shea on 24 January 2013

30 Second Summary

For the sake of this discussion, consider an "inbox" any place new commitments, whether they be messages, packages, or any other source of "stuff". There are three ways to deal with continually inflating inboxes: manage them, eliminate them, or not give a shit. There's no reason we can't use all three of these methods at the same time. Start by eliminating any inbox you don't care about to stop the flow of new low-priority commitments into your life. Build a system to manage the remaining inboxes you DO care about. Finally, ignore any inbox you can't either eliminate or manage — just let it fill up and overflow. Quit worrying. Relax. Go focus on the big things in your life.

Ignoring Email and Focusing on the Big Things

I had lunch with a couple of friends today and one of them said something pretty profound. I'm paraphrasing his quote here but it went along the lines of "If you want to get ahead, stop answering your email." He wasn't really kidding either. "If they want to find you, they'll find you. Instead, focus on the big things." I thought it was a pretty good example of the difference between 7 Habits and Getting Things Done. 7 Habits says to "put first things first" by focusing on big important things than small urgent things. GTD teaches us how to deal with the giant pile of urgent things filling up our inboxes so that we can then, once it is all clear, focus on the important ones.

One of GTD's problems, however, is that we never really clear everything off and everyone else in the world seems to want to get a new inbox into your life. We GTD ninjas end up spending our lives constantly cleaning and dusting, going crazy if we see a stack of mail more than six letters high. Everything that enters our lives is a commitment we must resolve. That can get pretty paralyzing if taken too far.

The iOS Red Dot of Failed Commitments

Consider iOS apps. It seems like every iOS app we install on our iPhones wants to immediately notify us of any tiny event it considers critical to our lives and we consider little more than an annoyance. Our app screens are littered with tiny red dots, each one of which displays a number of commitments we have failed to meet. Each of those apps with their red dots stares at us, pouring shame over our lives for our failure to live up to all of the Words with Friends games we've missed or the number of podcasts sitting unlistened in our queue.

The Commitments of Inboxes

We've discussed the value of eliminating inboxes before. It's bad enough to bring more crap into our lives, but when we bring crap that has some sort of additional demand as well, that's when our lives get really complex. It's the reason parents would rather give a kid a fake stuffed puppy than a real one. The real one adds all sorts of crap (literally) into your life that you now have to deal with. It's the difference between buying a copy of Wired at the newsstand (are there newsstands anymore?) and subscribing to it — adding a new stream of paper into your mailbox and a nearly constant deluge of requests to extend and renew your subscription for the next seventy years.

If we consider adding a new "thing" into your life a constant, adding a new inbox is a multiplier. The commitment never ends. It's like Lucy eating all the chocolate on the conveyer belt. It never ends. It's the difference between bringing in a glass of water and bringing in a hose that sits on your living room floor streaming water onto your fine beige carpet.

Eliminating Inboxes

Luckily, we capitalize off of that same multiplier when we eliminate an inbox. Think how good it feels to know that a source of nearly constant new "stuff" is cut off; that we no longer need to worry about it again. It's one thing to get rid of a pair of shoes. It's something else to turn off the subscription to the shoe-of-the-month club.

So you don't walk away from this article without a single piece of practical advice, here are a few inboxes you might turn off:

If you have other sources you've cut off that helped you simplify your life, send me an email to mike@mikeshea.net and I'll add it to the list.

Ignoring Inboxes

Like aggressive advertisement, it seems everyone else in the world wants to drag in that sewer pipe into your living room and start spraying their crap into your world. It seems like every major company wants to bring a new inbox into your life. Sometimes, like the stupid Starbucks notification I see every day on my iPhone, we can't get rid of. Instead, we have to do something else, something very hard for us obsessive GTDers.

We have to stop giving a shit.

We have to learn to let it go, to let it pile on up with every expectation that we will never check it, never care for it, never worry about it when it gets full or overflows. Let them scream. Let those numbers in the little red dots increase. Let the Google Plus Eye of Sauron go past 99+. Worry about something else; something that actually matters to you.

Like advertisement, We'll never clear our view of these alerts and notifications completely. We'll always have the annoying car salesman in the suit stomping around in our zen rock garden. That doesn't mean we have to let it into our brains.

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